On Being Unemployed

It has been far too long since I’ve last posted, and it remains a serious goal of mine to continue writing and sharing my experiences and ruminations. I began writing the below post in the middle of January, shortly before I interviewed for and accepted the position I now have at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. I’m the Assistant to the Principal there, and I really enjoy it. Much of the conflict discussed below as been assuaged by the work I’m doing now. More on that later, but for now I wanted to share a bit of my mindset at a time when I had been unemployed for just over two months and was starting to feel nervous about my prospects. The first half of this post is based on my vague but insistent impressions of not ‘fitting in’ and the second half has more to do with my musings about finding meaning in employment and being skeptical of easy choices.

I’m in month two of my job search after returning in November from the Peace Corps. I’d say it was going pretty well, except that I don’t have a job yet. I’m not applying to all that many jobs each week, partly because I am working on writing good cover letters, which require me to learn more about each company before describing what strengths and experiences I can offer. This, plus I’m looking for jobs that will offer me an opportunity to learn something new and challenge me, which limits my options. When people ask me what I want to be doing, I tell them that I am looking for something in the triangulation between journalism, politics, and business. That’s pretty broad, though, and if I can’t find something involving these areas I’ll just find a temporary job to pay the bills while I work towards those careers.

I’m learning that being unemployed is not simply the lack of a job. Having a job is important not just for generating income to pay the bills; it’s the main structuring factor in our lives. We schedule around our job, we find friends among our coworkers, and it becomes a big part of our identity. We fit into society in part because we have a job. Not having one leaves me with a lot of unstructured time, a loosely-defined goal of ‘getting a job,’ and a surreal sense of being on the outside of society.

Every time I walk around Minneapolis or St. Paul I can’t help but notice everyone on their way somewhere to do their job. All those people know what they’re expected to do and they’re given enough money to live on simply by performing that role. Walking among the office buildings feels like moving through a different dimension that I don’t exist in. My existence intersects the ‘working world’ but doesn’t quite come in contact with it. I’m a kind of hologram; I’m not invisible, but I’m essentially irrelevant and fundamentally disconnected from my surroundings. I feel like I’m not part of the socio-economic system that provides most of our lives with material goods and meaning. I sometimes find myself wanting to slip into an office building door and, like a little gear slipping into a gearbox, fit my teeth into the whirring machine.

I have conflicting opinions about what all these impressions of being outside of the system and not having a meaningful role in society really mean. In truth, the instinct to visualize gears in a machine is exactly how I don’t want to think about finding a job. I don’t want to be an unquestioning part of the status quo. I want to be free to do what feels meaningful based primarily on what I think is good, not necessarily what ‘society’ deems to be valuable. The draw to fit in and unthinkingly fill a predetermined economic role is the call of comfort and stability, probably because it means that the responsibility for making sense of what to do, why to do it, and what it means are forfeited. It’s also not clear to me how to balance the need to make money, the process for which is determined by those who have money, and the desire to follow my passions – not that those are very well defined, either – and fulfill a sense of my responsibility to others. I don’t have anything against finding a safe and stable job doing things that others value, but I want to make sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons; that I am making a positive contribution to society and that I will continue learning and challenging myself as I go forward. Obviously there’s a great potential for overlap between what I want to do and what others value. I envision my future careers as being oriented toward increasing that overlap until I can simply do what I love and have others value it enough to support me materially as a result. Until that time, I’m stuck trying to figure out whether to apply for jobs that I’m not excited about versus throwing my time and energy into the pursuit of unrealistic ideals.

It’s interesting that I just used the word ‘unrealistic’ there. I get the sense that many people frame this debate in terms of idealism and realism, i.e. that young people have an inflated (and egotistical) sense that they must follow their dreams regardless of what creates real value for others. That when reality hits after college they will realize that the world wasn’t made for them to live out their fantasies without connection to the material existence that everyone must lead. The process of accepting that we must let go of our ideals and embrace the openings that society has for us is often framed as ‘growing up’ – that it’s what everyone has to do eventually. For people who don’t have health insurance, a steady income, a car, or many of the other things that are general prerequisites for being successful in our society, this is pretty compelling*. It’s also a recipe for never challenging the status-quo. I think that it leans too heavily on people’s fears and insecurities and not enough on people’s creativity, natural desire to be unique, and aspirations to improve our world. It’s dangerously easy to accept the role and narrative that society has at the ready for us, but if we abdicate responsibility for creating our own meaning and shaping our world then we essentially accept that our lives will be shaped by impersonal forces beyond our control. We will become objects rather than subjects, to borrow terms that I have a vague sense have been thoroughly discussed in existentialist philosophy.

The Peace Corps gave me a nice mix of independence and security because I had a basic structure and purpose provided for me, but still had a lot of autonomy in the work that I did. It’s hard to know where to find that balance now that I’m back in the states. I recognize that I need to be conscious of what others value in the world that I live in, but I’m not at all convinced that it’s not my place to question, challenge, and alter that world and those values. At the very least I don’t feel like I have to get it exactly right at the moment. It’s an evolving process, and if I have to do something that lies closer to ‘what others value’ as opposed to ‘what I value’ for a while in order to be able to do what I believe is ‘good’ down the road, then that’s okay.

*After some further reflection on this point, I want to acknowledge that my desire to find my passion and refusing to unquestioningly accept the options that are given to me by society are problems almost exclusively for the privileged. In addition to the aforementioned list of prerequisites for ‘being successful in our society’ should be added being white, educated, middle class, and male. In general I would say that our society is one of the most free in the world, but I need to remember that we are not born equal in the eyes of society. I can sit and ponder these pie-in-the sky questions about meaning and passion because I don’t have to deal with discrimination, sexism, poverty, violence, addiction, dependents, or disabilities. Those who are marginalized in our society have much more pressing and pragmatic things to spend their time and energy on, so I will not pretend that I think that everyone should be struggling with these questions. I just happen to be privileged enough to be able to.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by iamleadtheway on March 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been unemployed since October 2012 and something I noticed very early on in this time period is the disconnect I felt from other people. I thought I was over analyzing or overreacting but I’m glad to see that someone else experienced it too.


    • You’re not alone. It’s alienating, and it’s surprising how much of our sense of belonging is tied up in having a job. I hope you find your own meaning and value during this time.


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